Semarang and the Chinese treasure fleet
Lying almost midway along the northern coast of Java, Semarang is a port city with a deep Chinese connection. It is particularly famous for lumpia, the spring rolls introduced by Hokkien-speaking immigrants, while many local dishes use tofu as an important base. The influence extends beyond the culinary sphere, for it is in Semarang that a magnificent temple pays homage to the greatest admiral in Chinese history.
Roughly a century before Columbus set sail to the Americas, Ming Dynasty China was outfitting the first of seven maritime expeditions to cross the Indian Ocean. The goals were not so different to later Europeans: these exploits were an attempt to exert China’s imperial authority over maritime trade, while extending its ‘civilising influence’ over the ‘barbarian peoples’. China would establish relations with unknown kingdoms and ask them to join the existing tributary system – in which delegations brought gifts to the Ming emperor and acknowledged his supremacy.
Each of these expeditions involved the creation of colossal ‘treasure fleets’ with up to 317 ships carrying almost 28,000 men. Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who had proved his mettle in several military campaigns, would lead them all.
The fleet left China in the autumn of 1405, after the arrival of the northeast monsoon. All but one of the seven expeditions made stops in Java, with the longest being a four-month sojourn on the final voyage. In those days the island’s eastern half formed the core realm of the Majapahit Empire, a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom that was once the preeminent power in Southeast Asia.
Zheng He arrived in Java when Islam was starting to make inroads into the Majapahit realm. The Malay Annals of Semarang and Cerbon, a controversial text that first came to light in the 1960s, suggests that the visits of the treasure fleet led to the foundation of Chinese Muslim communities throughout Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines. It is also written that Zheng He appointed an individual to oversee those thriving communities.
On Java, Chinese Muslim leaders encouraged their followers to take on local names and adopt the Javanese way of life. Even today, the Javanese have not forgotten his role in helping to propagate Islam on what was then a predominantly Hindu-Buddhist island; a relatively new mosque in Surabaya – Indonesia’s second city – bears his name.
But of all the Javanese harbour towns the treasure fleet might have visited, none identifies with its admiral quite as much as Semarang. San Bao Long, the Chinese moniker for the city, is derived from Zheng He’s alternate name, Ma San Bao. According to the Malay Annals, the treasure fleet stopped here for a month in 1413 to undergo repairs, and Zheng He and his translator Ma Huan regularly visited the Chinese mosque for prayers. But there is no mention of Semarang in contemporary Chinese accounts, not even in Ma Huan’s own treatise on the countries he visited during those voyages.
Instead, the events surrounding the arrival of Zheng He are largely rooted in oral history and folklore. It is said that the admiral landed in the vicinity of Semarang after a number of his crew members fell ill. The treasure fleet dropped anchor at the estuary of the Kali Garang, where he found a cave in a nearby hillside to use for prayer. A temple was later built at the site and dedicated to the worship of Zheng He. It acquired the name Sam Poo Kong – Hokkien for ‘San Bao Cave’ – while it was known as Gedung Batu, ‘Stone Building’, to the native Javanese.
The original cave and temple collapsed in a landslide in 1704, but a new cave was hollowed out and the temple rebuilt several times over the following centuries. Sam Poo Kong’s latest incarnation was only completed in 2005, blending Chinese and Javanese architecture into one eclectic whole. That hybrid nature is perfectly representative because Zheng He is venerated by people from both ethnic groups – by Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists alike.
At Sam Poo Kong, the main hall is flanked by several smaller temples. One contains the burial place of the admiral’s deputy Wang Jinghong, another a sacred anchor said to belong to the treasure fleet. Still another holds a weapon supposedly used by Zheng He himself. It is strange to consider what the admiral would have made of his cult of worship today – and the annual parade in Semarang on the date of his arrival. ◊